At the outset of 2009, there were a number of potential challengers for the top spot in the men’s game, such as Andy Murray (7.6 to win the Australian Open) and Novak Djokovic 8.2. But they were no more than pretenders. The main plotline was still all about Roger and Rafa, the duo which had dominated the game for four straight seasons.
Rafael Nadal 9.2 had played second fiddle to the Swiss maestro ever since he demonstrated just how good he was by winning his first Grand Slam title at Roland Garros in 2005, beating Federer 3.5 in a four set semi-final on route. Since then, their rivalry had evolved into one for the ages, up there with the likes of Bjorg and McEnroe, Agassi and Sampras.
Nadal, one of the greatest clay-court players to have ever picked up a racket, dominated on the red stuff, while Roger Federer was fast becoming a challenger for Sampras’ title of the finest grasscourt player of the modern era, swatting all before him on the lawns of SW19 and Halle.
Nadal won their three straight finals at the French between 2006 and 2008, while Federer won their Wimbledon encounters of 2006 and 2007. It appeared both of them were more or less unbeatable on their favoured surfaces, with the other having to play second fiddle for at least part of the season.
In 2008, the status quo changed when Nadal destroyed Federer in the French final, and then won the greatest Wimbledon final of all time to depose Roger and snatch the number one ranking, adding another dimension to their already impressive story.
When the two played another five-set epic in this years Australian Open final, culminating in Federer breaking down in tears during the awards ceremony, you felt that Nadal had a chance to win the calendar Grand Slam with Federer’s best hope of major success coming in the second half of the season.
As it turned out, the season panned out rather differently. Robin Soderling 44.0 burst Nadal’s bubble at Roland Garros, allowing Federer to win the French and Wimbledon and break Sampras’ Grand Slam record in the process. Nadal missed much of the year with injury, and when he did return, it was a new, slimline Rafa, who didn’t cut the same imposing figure. His aura was missing.
After losing the US Open final to Juan Martin Del Potro 7.0, Federer also began to look forlorn, seemingly struggling with motivation and consistency. He lost two matches at the ATP Tour finals, struggling to cope with Del Potro’s power for the second consecutive match and suffering his first ever defeat to Nikolay Davydenko 23.0. While he looked jaded, there was no real reason for it, as he had hardly played since the US Open.
Without the excuse of overplaying and fatigue, the reason for Federer’s lacklustre performances more likely lies in knowing that the days of just having to worry about Nadal as a potential banana skin are over. In truth, he never hit the heights during his French Open and Wimbledon wins, and now he has to contend with the young guns who are starting to fulfill their potential; players like Del Potro and a resurgent Djokovic.
So what will 2010 hold for the two modern greats of the game? I would be surprised if they were to contend a Grand Slam final in 2010. Nadal finished the season as the ATP Tour finals’ whipping boy, and it will be extremely difficult to recover from that.
As already mentioned, his aura of invincibility has been severely punctured after that defeat to Soderling, coupled with his dramatic weight loss and ongoing fitness problems. He doesn’t look the same as during his pomp of just 12 months ago, and it remains to be seen whether he can play at anything like the same level.
As for Federer, you know he will be there or thereabouts in the Grand Slams. He always is. But several players will fancy their chances against him more than ever. The likes of Del Potro and Djokovic will go on court believing they are favourites to win, while a band of up and coming players just behind them will relish the chance to grab Federer’s scalp at a Slam.
Once Federer has been knocked out of a tournament by someone outside the top three, the floodgates might open just as they did for Sampras after Federer beat him at Wimbledon in 2001. It wouldn’t be a total surprise if that happened as soon as the Australian Open in January.
It is extremely difficult to predict what will happen in 2010, more so than for several seasons. However, it won’t just be about the Federer- Nadal rivalry.
Reproduced with permission from betting.betfair.com. Ã‚Â© The Sporting Exchange Limited
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